Monsignor Roberto Zagnoli watches over the Vatican treasures

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As curator of the "Vatican Splendors" exhibition that opens today, Monsignor Roberto Zagnoli must rank among Rome's most frequent fliers.

Whenever this show opens in a major city, the amiable, blue-eyed cleric accompanies the 200-plus treasures he chose to represent the art, faith and history of the Roman Catholic Church. Last week, the 70-year-old cultural emissary got a large taste of Pittsburgh's passion for sports when he attended his first live hockey game and watched the Penguins defeat the Detroit Red Wings in the inaugural game at Consol Energy Arena.

"The way they beat each other, it's very comparable to the gladiators in the Colosseum," Monsignor Zagnoli said through his interpreter, Roberto Smiraglio.

But the Renaissance scholar was also "shocked that beating is allowed," Mr. Smiraglio added.

Monsignor Zagnoli, an impish, engaging man whose sense of humor transcends the fact that he is not fluent in English, was asked by Pope John Paul II to assemble the first Vatican exhibition in 1993, the year the pontiff visited Colorado for World Youth Day. The exhibition here is the fourth and newest incarnation of that show.

A native of Ravenna, Monsignor Zagnoli was ordained a priest in his hometown in 1965. He studied the psychology of communication at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Bologna. In Rome, he studied Christian liturgy. He is the author of a new book, published in Italian by the Vatican, that focuses on art in the Sistine Chapel. The first book of a multivolume work called "The Painted Word: The Bible in the Sistine Chapel," features scriptural passages that inspired each scene, which are juxtaposed with the artwork and his commentary. The work will be translated into English.

He believes art is the most common and diffuse language and that understanding a particular artist's religious beliefs plays a part in appreciating an artwork's context.

"The beauty comes from art and in any religion, beauty means God. When you think you know everything about a piece of art, that's the time to go deeper into contemplation," he said.

His time in Rome has allowed him innumerable opportunities to marvel at the Sistine Chapel. His office is in its papal sacristy, just beyond the Room of Tears where newly elected popes contemplate what name they will choose and their looming responsibilities. But his favorite place to absorb beauty and meditate is in Classe, a harbor town just outside of Ravenna. When no one is around, he visits the Basilica di Sant'Apollinare, famed for its splendid Byzantine mosaics made between the sixth and 12th centuries.

"He rings the bell and they open the door for him," the translator said.

Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648. First Published October 2, 2010 4:00 AM


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